Kenzie’s Closet: More than a prom dress

CINCINNATI (AP) — Holding up the straps on the black satin, floor-length formal dress, the teen looks sheepishly at Cindy Muething.

The girl wonders if there’s any way the volunteer seamstress can disguise the royal blue strip of fabric across the top of the dress she’s picked out for her upcoming prom.

Muething doesn’t miss a beat. Of course she can. She and her merry band of fabric wizards have oh-so-many tricks tucked in their pin cushions.

“What if we blinged it out?’ Muething’s eyes twinkle as she gets up from her sewing machine and heads to a little room in the back where all the ribbons and beads and bows are kept.

“We will make that fit you better, too,” Muething assures the girl, who doesn’t seem quite convinced. “You sure you don’t want some sparkle?”

Welcome to the magic room inside Kenzie’s Closet, an Evanston nonprofit that will provide more than 400 high school girls gowns, shoes and accessories for their proms at no cost this spring.

With their sewing machines whirring and their fingers flying as they stitch and cut and pluck and pick at taffeta, satin and beading, it’s a little like the scene out of the 1950s Disney “Cinderella” when the mice Jaq and Gus scurry to help create the gown of all ballgowns.

… We can do it, we can do it

We can make her dress so pretty

There’s nothing to it, really

We’ll tie a sash around it

Put a ribbon through it

When dancing at the ball

She’ll be more beautiful than all …

Here in the basement boutique with walls washed in pink and racks of more than 1,000 dresses and racks of hundreds of shoes, the soon-to-be prom beauties are named Karita, Starr, Rebekah and Asia, among others. They come with their own story, says Kathy Smith, Kenzie’s Closet’s executive director. Some have never worn a formal dress, Others have never had clothing that was not a hand-me-down. Still others have never been told they are beautiful. And certainly, most of these young women have never been fitted or had a dress altered just for them.

And every woman knows there is nothing like the feel of a dress that hugs the waist and fits not just right, but perfect.

Each of the high school girls gets exactly this treatment at the closet, which was started by Brynne Coletti after discovering girls in her daughter’s high school were not going to prom because of cost. The average cost of prom last year was about $900, according to a survey by Visa.

At Kenzie’s Closet, each girl is greeted by a personal shopper, who helps comb the racks of gowns for just the right color and style. There are sizes from 0 to 40 here and dresses in every color of the rainbow. Shoppers help find the right shoe and evening bag to complement the gown. And then there comes the accessories. There are racks of all things sparkly tucked in the back: bracelets, necklaces, headbands and, yes, there are — of course — tiaras.

“I feel pretty,” says Rebekah Kohlbrand, an 18-year-old DePaul Cristo Rey High School senior who wasn’t sure she was going to attend her April 23 prom. “I don’t know how to explain it. It was shocking to myself when I looked in the mirror.”

Kohlbrand has never owned a dress like the bejeweled, red number that clings to her small frame and appears it was made for her. She won’t have to visit the magic room. Even though she didn’t come here looking for a red dress, it is perfect, she says beaming.

Jane Wilton, 83, has volunteered as a personal shopper at the Closet for the past eight years. Once a retail worker for 40 years, Wilton has an eye for which cuts and style work with a young woman’s body shape. She also knows how beautiful clothes can make a young woman stand straighter and infuse confidence.

“I just love that they feel good about themselves,” she says.

For Starr, a 19-year-old Hughes High School senior, it took four dresses to arrive at the one.

The bubble-gum-pink tulle dress with a fitted, beaded bodice made her look like a princess. Seriously.

“Before I even put it on I knew this was the one. There was just something that caught me eye,” she says, running her hands down the full skirt, propped full with several layers of netting underneath. “I’ve never, ever had a dress like this. It makes me feel beautiful.”

And that is exactly the point, the seamstresses in the back say.

It’s what keeps Gail Ryan, a retired home economics high school teacher, coming back every day, year after year.

“When a girl finds the perfect one, the perfect dress, and there is a smile on her face, that’s what does it for me,” Ryan says, adding that there have been times when girls have cried.

Perhaps a tear or two may get shed in the magic room, too. Ryan isn’t saying. She just keeps on stitching.


Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer,

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